VOA Correspondent Dan Robinson has one of the most coveted positions in the world – covering the White House and the Presidency of Barack Obama from the front row. Dan shares his observations about the Arab Spring and broader Middle East issues in his WHITE HOUSE INSIGHTS blog.
One of the challenges of covering high-level meetings, particularly where leaders of countries are involved, is listening to what is and isn’t said, keeping in mind what media reporting quoting officials from both sides predicted might be said, in public or in private, and comparing that to what actually emerged.
Such was the case with the March 5th meetings between President Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their brief public remarks before formal closed door talks began with Obama discussing not Iran, which was the dominating issue for the talks, but Israel-Palestinian peace efforts and regional developments.
The talks, he said, came at a “critical time” with “incredible changes” in the Middle East and North Africa and “terrible” bloodshed in Syria, along with democratic transition in Egypt. In all of this, Obama said, Israel remains an island of democracy in the midst of all of this.
The president had emphasized the day before in his speech to AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) his view that developments in the Arab Spring make achieving a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even more important.
As he did at AIPAC, Obama did his due diligence where U.S. – Israeli relations are concerned, calling the commitment to Israel’s security “rock solid” and saying the United States will always “have Israel’s back” when it comes to security.
On Iran, there was no confrontation — not that one was expected in a public setting. Both leaders looked directly and intensively at each other as each made remarks to a room full of photographers, cameras, microphones and reporters in the media pool.
There was no talk in public of so-called “red lines” — the major issue between Israel and the United States as they both continue to assess where Iran’s leaders are on the time line of nuclear development and whether Tehran might make a decision to develop a nuclear weapon, a step that could trigger Israeli or combined military action.
President Obama did not repeat what he said the day before when he warned about “loose talk of war” and “bluster.” He did say that he and Netanyahu prefer a diplomatic solution, adding he recognizes that it is “unacceptable from Israel’s perspective” for a nuclear weapon to be in the hands of a country that has called for its destruction. Immediately after, Obama said it is “profoundly” in the U.S. interest as well to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Absent from the president’s public remarks was anything approaching a specific statement about what kind of military action the U.S. would take, or when (as calibrated against Iran crossing any red lines). Media reports in the days leading up to the talks had quoted un-named Israeli sources as saying Netanyahu intended to press Obama to lay out specifics in this regard.
That may have happened behind closed doors and remains to be reported in the inevitable statements senior administration officials make describing the talks and more “granular” summaries emerging in coming days.
Notable was Obama’s listing of some very specific negatives that could flow from Iran actually obtaining a weapon — a possible regional nuclear arms race, a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorists, or a regime that has been a state sponsor of terrorism “feeling it can act even more aggressively or with impunity as a consequence of its nuclear power.”
Obama repeated that his policy regarding Iran is not one of “containment” but of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. This appears to be not only a key card being played in attempting to persuade Israel to provide more “time and space”, but the White House response to those suggesting that it would be at all possible to simply contain a nuclear-armed Iran.
How events develop after the March 5th talks remains to be seen. President Obama said he believes there is still a “window” for sanctions and diplomatic pressure to work. From the public statements in the Oval Office, it appears the U.S. and Israeli leaders delivered the messages they had to.
Both left the door sufficiently open for potential military action to stop the advance of an Iranian nuclear weapons drive. Netanyahu made clear that he sees his “supreme responsibility” as making sure that Israel remains the “master of its fate”.
The message to Iran was also clear. Ultimately, Obama said, “the Iranian regime has to make a decision” to move in the direction of giving up nuclear weapons ambitions.
Both in remarks to AIPAC and his public remarks in the Oval Office with Netanyahu, President Obama aimed a message also at war-weary Americans, saying both he and the Israeli leader “understand the costs of any military action”.
He also made a point of trying to reassure Americans, and Israelis, nervous that Israel might not even provide the United States with advance notice of any preemptive military strike on Iranian nuclear sites. Obama referred to “unprecedented” levels of coordination, mentioning specifically military and intelligence consultations.
Connected with this assurance, as he put it, Obama’s final remark in the Oval Office also raises some questions. Obama said he intends to ensure that this close coordination continues “during what will be a series of difficult months I suspect in 2012.” What Obama meant by this will likely be the focus of questions in coming days.
Dan Robinson has been Voice of America's Senior White House Correspondent since 2010, arriving from Capitol Hill where he covered the House of Representatives from 2002 to 2009. He is also a former bureau chief for VOA in Southeast Asia, and East Africa, and headed VOA's Burma broadcast service between 1997 and 2001.